MYOKO KOGEN – Nigata

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Backcountry skiing in one of Japan’s greatest snowy regions.

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Just over the border from Nagano prefecture into neighboring Niigata prefecture is Myoko Kogen, a skiing area known for its heavy snowfalls. This area, comprised of three main skiing areas, has seen a large boom in visitors from overseas in recent years. There is the Suginohara skiing area that offers a change in elevation of over 1,100m and a skiing route up to 8,500m in length, the Akakura area comprised of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, and the Akakura Onsen Ski Area set amidst the backdrop of a hot spring town, and the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area that has seen a recent boom in park facilities and is popular to snowboarders that can be found in between.

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Another area seeing a boost in popularity spread through word-ofmouth from the overseas skiers who have visited recently is the Seki Onsen Ski Area. The course itself at the skiing area here is extremely small, but enjoys great popularity due to its easy access to backcountry skiing areas that let you ski to your heart’s content out on the powder snow.

This time, after my trip to Echigo Yuzawa, I chose to venture forth to the skiing areas in the Akakura area and to the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area. The reason for my choice was to see the longstanding Akakura Kanko Hotel on the skiing fields of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, which has recently been refurbished and affords amazing views out over the surrounding countryside.

AKAKURA IS KNOWN FOR BEING A HOT SPRING TOWN, AND HERE THE TOWNSHIP’S HISTORY ALLOWS YOU TO ENJOY DELICIOUS TRADITIONAL COUNTRYSIDE CUISINE.

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On my trip to Echigo Yuzawa and Myoko Kogen, I was joined by travel editor of the popular skiing magazine Snow Action, David Windsor.

Here, David shares a few impressions on his trip to the area.
The Niigata prefecture of Japan is such a rewarding adventure. The snow’s out of this world and makes for awesome days on the speedy Yuzawa “gelandes”, with over 12 resorts to choose from just 75 minutes from Tokyo; or smashing through pow in the trees and out the side and back country of Myoko. The adventure continues off slope with a relaxing peaceful onsen in our hotel or ryokan before hitting the boisterous bars and rowdy restaurants full of happy folk sharing their experiences and loud shouts of ‘kanpai’ over frosty beers, hot sake and an awesome array of shochu. As for the food, the adventure begins with fish, an omelette and pickled veg for breakfast; an amazing bowl of squid ink with mozzarella cheese udon noodles for lunch at “Udon-no-Fu” in Akakura Onsen; and for a super fun dinner I loved the okonomiyaki savory pancakes and yakisoba made in front of us on our table top hot plate at the “Lumber Jack” or the yakitori at “Asagao”, also in Akakura Onsen. None of that could top a magnificent 10 course kaiseki banquet at the NASPA New Otani Resort in Yuzawa. All up, Yuzawa and Myoko is a wonderfully happy, unique and cultural ski adventure that should be experienced with an open mind and a “try everything” attitude.

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The timing of my trip couldn’t have been better. Even though it was late March, the ground was thick with snow, with a further snowfall later in the night that turned the skiing fields into a heaven of powder snow by the morning. The cold was nothing like that of the harsh winter months, however, allowing me to enjoy a powder run out on the slopes. This is its facilities, most notably the newly established Aqua Terrace, were a sight to behold. Some rooms come complete with an outdoor hot spring bath, and the layout of the rooms that afford a view out over the skiing fields is the very picture of luxury. Your choice in dining ranges from French to Japanese cuisine, bakeries and more, offering a wide variety of options. The spa facilities are a hit with female guests, and you could certainly find no better hotel for a stay in Akakura. I look forward to a stay there someday, but alas my time had come to make my descent back down the mountain.

My goal for my next destination – the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area – was the tree run, an area to which entry was previously prohibited, yet opened up in response to popular demand. Heading straight for the course, I could see that the treeline in the middle of the slopes as you come down from the peak was open to entry, offering a satisfying change of pace as you ski through the trees on powder snows on just the right decline. Such easy access to sidecountry areas such as these is a true delight.

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The Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area also offers easy access to backcountry areas. Heading to the peaks by lift and trekking further out allows you to enjoy amazing backcountry skiing. The backcountry of the Myoko area is comparatively low in risk, and highly recommended. I was able to visit the backcountry this time with the help of what I was here for! The Akakura Kanko Hotel itself offered a refined, elegant atmosphere befitting its reputation, and a guide from the Dancing Snow touring company, and was met with an amazing course. My run here was very fun yet not too advanced, making it the perfect choice for all who visit. Check out the local Dancing Snow touring company for more details if you’re keen to try your hand.

Of the areas in Myoko, Akakura is known for being a hot spring town, and here the township’s history allows you to enjoy delicious traditional countryside cuisine. No matter where you go, you are met with the simple yet inspiring heritage of Japanese cuisine. One recommendation is Matagi at the foothills of the Ikenotaira skiing area. While English service is not necessarily their forte, familiar fare such as ramen is on offer and a must for any who visit, offering a window to the understated tastes of traditional Japanese cuisine.

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JAPAN’S MAGNIFICENT ONSENS

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Renowned hot spring towns can be found all over Japan. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to 3 of them. The beautiful winter wonderland – Ginzan, the easily accessible from Tokyo – Hakone and, one of the Big Three famous Japanese onsens – Kusatsu.

GINZAN

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Located in the snow and watermelon abundant town of Obanazawa in Yamagata prefecture lies Ginzan Onsen. The onsen inns here are concentrated on either side Ginzan River, 10km east of the main Obanazawa township. As the sun sets, the gas lanterns of the retro-styled inns lining the river are lit up, creating a romantic atmosphere reminiscent of the early 1900s.

Although Ginzan Onsen is particularly famous for its beautiful night view, it has equally stunning sights for every season. Its brilliant greenery in early summer and colourful autumn leaves, for example, make it a popular tourist spot all year round.

Following the discovery of silver in the 16th century, this town thrived in the early Edo period through its abundance, hence the name – Ginzan (Silver Mountain). Once the silver rush had subsided, it is said that the town turned its attention to customers seeking the hot springs for their health. Remnants of the silver mines can still be found today above the large waterfall deep within the onsen district.

The milky thermal waters of Ginzan Onsen are said to be beneficial for nerve pain, rheumatism, skin conditions, injuries and female illnesses. Dip your feet into the hot springs as you listen to the gentle sounds of the flowing river with a delicious meal and enjoy your stay.

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HAKONE

Hakone Onsen is located right next to Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture and is easily accessible via car, train and bus – making it a popular onsen spot. The fastest way to get there is via the ‘Romance Car’, a train which leaves from Shinjuku station and can take a mere 85 minutes to arrive at Hakone Onsen.

Surrounded by mountains and nature, Hakone has far too many sights to see in one day – from hot springs to art and gourmet food. Of course, the hot springs are the town’s main drawcard. There are over twenty onsen districts in the areas around Mount Hakone.

At the entrance of Hakone is the Hakone-Yumoto area which boasts over forty onsen inns and stores. It is the largest and oldest onsen area in Hakone Onsen. The thermal waters are simple alkaline based and are said to benefit those with nerve and joint pain, as well as improve blood circulation.

The onsen district lies alongside two rivers – Hayakawa and Sukumogawa. Various different styles of ryokan sit on the riverside, such as old, nationally treasured inns, traditional Japanese inns and even large scale spa resorts. With over twenty establishments that offer day trip options, one can see why it’s popular spot for a casual dip in an onsen.

KUSATSU IS A RENOWNED HOT SPRING WHICH HAS SOOTHED THE BODIES AND SOULS OF COUNTLESS JAPANESE FOLK THROUGHOUT HISTORY.

KUSATSU

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If you’re departing from Tokyo, Kusatsu Onsen is another highly recommended spot. One of the Big Three Onsens (Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, Gero Onsen in Gifu and Arima Onsen in Hyogo), Kusatsu is a renowned hot spring which has soothed the bodies and souls of countless Japanese folk throughout history. It has the highest natural thermal water yield of any hot spring in Japan, boasting over 32,300 litres a day.

Kusatsu Onsen is also one of the few acidic hot springs in Japan with a pH of 2.2. Its unique sulfuric, highly acidic waters can dissolve an aluminium 1 yen coin within a week of submersion. Thanks to its antibacterial qualities, the thermal waters are said to benefit those with chronic skin and digestive ailments.

The hot spring field in the heart of the onsen district is what keeps Kusatsu Onsen alive. 4000 litres of thermal waters flow out every minute and the area is constantly draped in rising steam. Inns and souvenir shops surround the area in order to draw from the hot spring field.

Kusatsu Onsen is the biggest resort town in Japan with over 130 inns and hotels and over 120 souvenir shops. Nearby lies Mount Kusatsu-Shirane with its crater lakes, Kusatsu Kokusai Ski Resort, as well as Mount Asama and Karuizawa to the south, so a combined trip to the surrounding areas would make for a fulfilling trip.

NARAYA

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Gunma, the heart of Japan. Situated amongst towering mountains in the nature abundant, onsen (hot spring) filled town of Kusatsu, dwells a history rich, long-standing ryokan – NARAYA. Take a dip in an onsen and soothe your soul as you soak up the ultimate experience.

If you are looking to experience a long established ryokan steeped in tradition, then look no further than NARAYA. It has the privilege of being located right next to a hot spring field in the centre of Kusatsu. Established in 1877, NARAYA has created the perfect balance of old charm with a clean and modern touch. NARAYA’s main attraction is, of course, the onsens. Of the six main veins of natural springs in Kusatsu, the oldest one is said to be the Shirohata (White Flag) spring which bubbles up next to the hot spring field.

NARAYA draws from this slightly cloudy, high temperature spring. Before the thermal waters are piped to each individual bath, it goes through a process known as yumomi – the act of cooling the waters with 1.5 metre-long paddles by heaving it through the air. This inn is one of a select few which still continues this traditional practice today.

Along with public baths segregated by gender, NARAYA also has private baths, made with Japanese cedar, available for reservation if you wish to be alone with your thoughts. The superb thermal waters combined with the refreshing scent of cedar gently caress the soul for a truly blissful experience. Also included with the private bath is a tatami mat room for you to relax in after a good soak.

After a relaxing dip in the onsen, you can look forward to a traditional Japanese dinner made with the finest seasonal ingredients. Eating a delicious meal in a yukata is sure to blow all the stresses of travelling away.

The assistant manager of NARAYA, Tatsuya Saeki, spoke to us about the their views on hospitality. Here’s what he had to say, “All of Japan, including the onsen-filled town of Kusatsu, is gradually getting accustomed to welcoming foreign guests from around the world. Here at NARAYA, we have particularly large numbers of foreigners staying with us. They have made the trip deep into the mountains to our country town, so the least we can do is ensure they leave here with fun memories. This is why we do our very best to maintain this wonderful atmosphere and provide the best service.”

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NARAYA
Address: 396 Kusatsu, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma
Tel: 81-279-88-2311
Email: naraya@kusatsu-naraya.co.jp
Web: www.kusatsu-naraya.co.jp

TIPS BEFORE YOUR FIRST VISIT TO AN ONSEN RYOKAN

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Learning some ryokan and onsen etiquette before your first visit is sure to make for a much richer experience. Here are some handy tips before you take the plunge.

THINGS TO NOTE WHEN MAKING A BOOKING

Many of you might be worried about how much English is understood at ryokans. If you’re not a fluent Japanese speaker, the best way to make a booking is via email or fax. Fluency in spoken English is still uncommon in Japan, so it’s best to put your booking in writing to avoid mistakes.

It is very important to be aware of peak seasons before you make plans to stay at a ryokan. Christmas/New Year’s, Golden Week (late April – early May) and Obon (mid-August) are particularly busy, leading to higher booking fees. Sometimes rooms will be booked out one year in advance for these periods, so make sure you are well prepared.

Another point you should be careful of are the prices displayed for booking. Unlike in Australia, the prices are per person, not per room. Also, although credit cards issued by major banks are accepted at many places, some only accept cash. Have some cash on hand, just in case.

ARRIVING AT THE RYOKAN

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Make sure you remember to take your shoes off indoors in Japan. When you arrive at the ryokan, take your shoes off at the entrance and slip on a pair of the provided slippers. However, once you’ve entered your room, remove your slippers so you do not damage the tatami mats.

If you happen to stay in a traditional Japanese room there may be a small shrine in the corner of your room with a scroll and seasonal flowers. As it is considered a sacred place, avoid placing any luggage or items there.

There will be a yukata placed in your room. Yukatas are a type of casual kimono made of cotton which can be worn around the ryokan. The correct way to wear a yukata is to slip it on like a robe, fold the left over the right side and then tie the obi (belt) around your waist just tight enough so that it stays together.

If you are unsure about anything, just ask the nakai-san. The nakai-san is in charge of taking care of guests during their stay. She will be at the entrance to greet you upon arrival at the inn. She is also the person who brings tea, snacks and meals to your room. Once you have finished dinner, she will come to retrieve the dinnerware and set up your futon. You’re sure to become very familiar with her during your stay.

Although it is not customary to give tips in Japan, if you wish to express your gratitude for the nakai-san’s services, place 2000-3000 yen in an envelope and pass it onto her as you check-out.

TAKE A DIP IN THE ONSEN

If you’ve never been to an onsen before, it may seem like a daunting experience. Aside from cleaning times, onsens are open all day and all night, so you can take a dip whenever you please. You can also hop in as many times as you want during your stay. The customary Japanese way is to have a soak before dinner.

Start off by grabbing the provided towel and head over to the bathing area. Most baths are separated by gender. Take your clothes (or your yukata) off in the change rooms and wash your whole body in the showers. Most onsens stock their showers with shampoo and soap.

Before finally hopping into the onsen, you must not forget to kakeyu. This is to scoop up some of the mineral waters with the provided ladle and pour it over your body. It is important to do this, not only to rinse off any remaining dirt, but to acclimatise your body to the heat and feel of the thermal waters.

The temperature of onsens differ from place to place. Some may be lukewarm whereas others may be piping hot. The thermal waters are packed with minerals, providing a wide range of benefits for your skin. Some people go to onsens purely for its health benefits.